Monday, 22 August 2016

How to Qualify for Kona - As an Age-Grouper

To most amateur triathletes, crossing the famous finish line on Ali'i Drive still represents the pinnacle of Age-Group triathlon achievement. Each year over 80,000 athletes try, but only around 2,000 succeed.

So how does one qualify for “Kona” as an Age-Grouper?

There are a number of routes in and the specifics vary year to year. So what follows represents a basic guide on how to gain that coveted Age-Group spot on Dig Me beach!

You can earn an outright qualifying spot in one of the many Ironman branded events around the globe. All full distance “M-Dot” races offer qualifying places. At the time of writing, two 70.3 races were offering outright Kona qualifying slots and they are both in China. Races in the first part of the year qualify for Kona in the same year. Once past the late August races your Ironman race will qualify you for the following year's Kona.

You can earn a “legacy” spot by completing 12 Ironman branded events and then joining the queue for one of the 100 legacy spots awarded each year.

If you are in the armed forces (in any country) then you can qualify for Kona's new “Military Division”. This year there were three qualifying races. Ironman 70.3 California (Superfrog Triathlon), Ironman 70.3 Cairns and the Ironman 70.3 European Championship in Wiesbaden, Germany. But hey, the military guys and girls tend to be pretty quick, so this is by no means a soft option.

If you are a hand-cycle / Wheelchair athlete, then you need to shoot for your qualifying spot at either Ironman 70.3 Cairns, Ironman 70.3 Luxembourg or Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs.

All other Para-Triathletes need to apply to Ironman and then get chucked into a raffle for a random draw of 5 places.

You can of course be famous enough to be given a spot – lets call this “qualifying through the kitchen” since Gordon Ramsey is probably the most famous contemporary example. Realistically, not a viable route for the majority.

You can apply for the Ironman “Executive Challenge”. You need to be a high flying executive type, ideally American.... and rich. A few spots are awarded this way each year and the rules seem rather arbitrary. Again, most probably NOT a realistic option for the majority.

You can even buy a Kona spot. For this route, you'll need to be VERY rich though. Ironman auction off a handful of Kona spots on e-bay each year, with proceeds going to (their) charity (the Ironman Foundation). You'll need at least £40k in change..... probably more.

Oh and then there is (was) the Kona Lottery. A “golden ticket” to some, an “unearned accolade” to others but, critically, in the eyes of the U.S Justice Department at least, simply “illegal gambling”. So the Kona Lottery no longer exists as a back door to Kona. WTC were fined the sum of all their profits from the Kona lottery over the last three years and the Feds are now $2.76 million better off as a result. Thanks WTC.

So, for most, outright qualification and Legacy remain the two most likely routes in. 

For legacy spots it's pretty straight forward. You just need to keep plugging away. Do your 12 full Ironman events (they must be M-Dot branded races of course), get your name on the list and wait your turn. There are a few nuances of course. For Kona 2015, within your 12 finishes, you needed to have competed at least 1 full distance Ironman in each of the preceding two years and you need to be registered for an Ironman in 2015. Don't imagine you'll get your Kona slot as soon as you have your 12 either. In all likelihood, it'll be another season before you find yourself in the top 100 on the waiting list. Indeed, legacy is likely to take even longer each year as qualifying outright becomes more difficult and more people accumulate the required 12 M-Dot finishes. 

Outright qualification can be broken into a number of sub divisions. These divisions don't actually exist physically and certainly are not clear cut, but they do give the would be qualifier some options when planning their route (and level of fitness) needed to make it to the Big Island.

Your options are......

Be either very, very old or very, very young.

Now I don't mean this to sound agest but the reality is, Ironman popularity (and athlete ability) tends to peak between the ages of 25-45. While the total qualifying spots in a race are divided up “pro-rata” based on the number of athletes in each category, Ironman has to offer at least 1 qualifying spot in every age category in every qualifying race. This can be used to your advantage if you find yourself in the very young or very old categories.

Now you may find, if you are very young or old, you'll only have have a handful of competitors in your Age-Group. In this instance the numbers are very much in your favour. For example... In many races, the female 18-24 category may only have 1 qualifying spot but perhaps as few as 5 competitors, some of which might not finish. Whereas the male 40-44 category may have up to 7 spots but likely over 60 athletes trying for each of those one spots. So, on the face of it, odds of 1:5 are way better odds than 1:60.

That being said, you are still likely to find yourself up against some stiff competition in the younger and older Age-Groups. I have super talented young friends (18-24) who have missed qualifying with 9:02 finishing times! Fact is, every Age-Group will likely have it's super stars and, unless it's you, you'll have to rely a little on the next element... detailed below.


The day after every Ironman race, Kona slots are awarded at a presentation – “The Kona Roll Down”. If a qualifying athlete decides not to accept their Kona slot then that spot “rolls down” to the next athlete on the list in the same Age-Group. This is quite common in the younger and older Age-Groups where athletes might not be in a position (or want) to race Kona. Smaller competitor numbers in these Age-Groups also mean athletes have a better chance of “getting lucky” even if they have finished some way behind the outright Age-Group winner. 

Roll down is less likely in the more hotly contested and heavily subscribed categories. But it does happen. Indeed, it's not unheard of for qualifying spots to roll down quite some way in some categories. Case in point.... Ironman UK this year, one of the female categories had two Kona spots up for grabs. The first spot went to the Age-Group winner, the 2nd spot rolled all the way down to 26th place who finished 3 hrs behind the winner of the Age-Group. 

So, an important point... if your name is called at roll down and you are NOT present to accept your place, with the means to pay for it ($890 at the time of writing) then you lose your place. Ironman will NOT hold your spot, it just keeps rolling down until there is somebody physically present at roll-dwon to claim it.

I have another friend who had been trying to qualify for Kona for many years and one year, after finishing an event some way outside the qualifying spots, decided to forego the roll down presentation.... And yes, his name was called – gutted doesn't come close.

So, if you think you have even the remotest chance – go to roll down because..... you never know!

Another nuance worth noting is if places go unclaimed. This can happen in the (much) older categories where there may only be one or two athletes competeing, but there will still be a single qualifying slot available. Now if nobody finishes or none of the finishers in the category want the slot, then the slot gets allocated to the biggest Age-Group of the same gender (typically 35-39 or 40-44). So, extra slots can become available in a category at roll down. But you likely need to stay until the end of roll down to know this.

A chap at Ironman Coppenhagen maybe knew this. All the M40-44 slots were allocated and rolled down. Those missing out all went home dejected..... One chap, finishing 233rd in the Age-Group stayed to the end. An older Age-group slot went unclaimed so was transferred to the M40-44's and he was there to claim it!! So if you miss out by one place at roll down and you are in the biggest Age-Group..... STAY TO THE END OF ROLL DOWN.

Just earn a qualifying spot outright 

I say “just” not because doing so is simple, but because the concept of what you have to do is simple. You don't have to be a certain age, sex or rely on luck. You just have to be one of the very best in your gender / Age-Group. And looking at past performances from Kona qualifiers gives you a pretty clear idea of what you have to do....Simple. Apart from the whole training and having no life outside triathlon thing!

As already mentioned, Ironman qualifying spots are awarded pro rata across all Age-Groups. The Age-Groups with more entrants get a larger percentage of the available slots. That might mean 6 slots go to the male 40-44 category, while the female 30-34 will only get one or, at best, two. A guide for the Kona Spot allocation is offered in advance of the race, but only confirmed once all athletes have registered. 

It's fair to say that, outside the youngest and oldest categories, qualification is likely to be equally tough. Fewer competitors in a category, fewer spots available. More spots available will mean more competitors vying for them. So it's swings and roundabouts.

It's also worth noting that things are likely to get harder still in 2016. There is a limit on numbers at Kona – that can't change. There are more qualifying races each year and most events in 2016 (outside Championship events) will only have 40 spots up for grabs. So all athletes will likely need to be targeting a podium in their Age-Group in order to qualify.

If you want to earn a spot through this route, then you need to do your homework. Racing an Ironman will give you some idea of where you are in relation to those gaining the tops spots and this should give you a clear idea of the size of the task you face. Resources like Russ Cox's excellent website ( are also a great way of finding out what level you need to be at (for a specific race) if outright qualification is your goal.

Qualifying for Kona by gaining an outright Age-Group slot doesn't “just happen”. Most gain their spots having followed a very carefully executed plan and often several years of dedicated training from a base of solid, Ironman performances. Most will have coaches (or guidance of some sort) and they take their sport very seriously (most probably, bordering on obsessively).

Sporadic training and then hoping the taper will bring about some miracle on race day really doesn't happen. To qualify outright, you need to do your homework, know what level you need to attain, train to attain that level and then execute on race day. In other words, you need to toe the line at your selected event knowing that, if everything goes to plan, you are fit / fast enough to qualify.

It also pays to pick your race. Do you race well in extremes of temperature (hot or cold) where your opposition might suffer (Malaysia, Bolton). Are you a big, physically strong rider who would benefit from a tough (hilly / windy) bike course but would favour a flat run (Lanza). Or is strength to weight your main advantage meaning a hilly bike and run is likely to benefit you (Tenby). You can play to your strengths by picking the right race.

So how good are Kona qualifyers and how hard do they train? It's perhaps a little hard to say as has been discussed qualification standards do differ between Age-Groups and from race to race. But safe to say, domestically at least, would be Kona qualifiers will be well used to standing on podiums in their respective Age-Groups and the “middle Age-Groups” probably quite used to racing at the sharp end overall.

For those working full-time, it would be rare to find a Kona qualifyer who does not devote a big chunk of their available spare time to training. Athletes differ of course, with some requiring more volume than others. Anything less than 10 hours training per week would be very rare. Weekly training volumes between 15 and 20 hours are more common. And there are those who train even more!

If you are in one of the “prime” age categories and it's an Age-Group podium you're after at Kona, then the level needed is close to that of the professional athletes. In fact, on the day, you'll need to beat a good many pros if you fancy a “fruit bowl” (the prize awarded to the top 5 in each Age-Group).

Universal amongst most Kona athletes would be time management (fitting training in early mornings, and lunchtimes for example). Another given is training consistently. Week in, week out, month in, month out. If your lifestyle, career etc, does not provide a predictable routine, then training consistency will be hard to achieve and the necessary gains hard to achieve. Self sacrifice is also par for the course. Be that spare time for other hobbies and pass-times, an active social life (outside of the sport) or career progression! So some tough choices need to be made.

Training with the degree of dedication required will place stress on families and relationships so a partner (and family) needs to be 100% on board for a journey who's destination might be several years away. I do know plenty of top Kona Age-Groupers who somehow manage to juggle training, work and family without dropping any balls – it can be done. But there are also plenty of single Kona qualifiers with no kids, or those who have a triathlete partners with the same goal!

So there you have it.

It's fair to say that a genetic predisposition for endurance is required (along with all the training) in order to qualify “outright” for an Age-Group Kona Spot. And the level of dedication / sacrifice required probably stretches what would be considered as acceptable for many amateur athletes.

But if you want it badly enough – you can always play the long (and expensive) game of Legacy entry.

I harboured dreams of qualifying for Kona at Ironman Zurich in 2009 but missed the mark by over an hour. It would be another 5 years before I finally got that spot.

But it's that challenge that makes the reward so worthwhile.

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